Trump Has All But Lost Peace in the Middle East
The Trump years are shaping up to be the most consequential period for American diplomacy on the Israel-Palestine front since the Clinton presidency a generation ago. But that doesn’t necessarily mean what’s happening is positive, at least for the Palestinians and everyone interested in real peace.
The Clinton era of the Oslo Accords was marked by joint Israeli and Palestinian diplomatic initiative and Washington support, ultimately producing the historic mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) and the subsequent creation of a Palestinian self-governing authority in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This new system of relations inspired continuing diplomatic efforts from Wye Plantation (1998) to Camp David (2000) and then Annapolis (2007)—all supported by the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations.
In contrast, the dramatic changes introduced during the Trump presidency have all been unilateral American actions, applauded by Israel and decried by the PLO. Notably, there was Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2018. Then came the defunding of the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency), the refugee assistance body established in 1949. The U.S. has historically been the main donor to UNRWA, which runs schools and medical facilities in Palestinian refugee camps throughout the Middle East. The withdrawal of funding has had more than just a symbolic effect on the organization.
Trump’s decisions strike at the heart of the system of agreements and understandings established with critical U.S. support not only during the Oslo years but, in the case of UNRWA, hearkening back to the first years of the postwar conflict. Taken together, they spell the death knell for the tottering weltanschauung produced by decades of American diplomacy.
The dramatic changes introduced during Trump’s short tenure are the direct consequence of the shortcomings of the process so famously celebrated by Clinton, Rabin, and Arafat on the White House lawn on a gloriously sunny day in September 1993.
The system created by the architects of Oslo failed to establish a territorial basis for Palestinian sovereignty or Palestinian democracy. Instead, Trump inherited a barren diplomatic landscape that had succeeded only in consolidating Israeli occupation and settlement objectives—most notably the transfer of more than one half million Israelis to territories occupied by Israel. This “success” irretrievably complicated the prospects of a consensual resolution to the conflict between Palestine and Israel that was at the heart of the internationally supported consensus established by Oslo.
Trump’s effort to create new rules of the game is unfolding with or without the introduction of the much-hyped but ever-elusive “deal of the century.” And Congress, taking its cue from Trump’s effort to dismantle key aspects of U.S. policy, is shaping its own initiatives accordingly.
Washington’s latest contribution is the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act. Enacted last year, the law states that foreign entities that receive American assistance may be sued in U.S. courts for acts of terror.
Together, these actions represent a concerted effort to dramatically reduce if not end the billions in U.S. support to the Palestinian Authority that provided a practical and policy foundation for American and international support for the PA. More broadly, they signify the creation of a bipartisan majority among Washington’s political class that has tired of continuing support for the kind of Israel-Palestinian engagement that defined the Oslo era.
In this new environment, Israelis naturally sense an opportunity to consolidate their hold on the West Bank and preempt a Palestinian state. Israel’s political landscape has been all but purged of support, even rhetorical support, for Palestinian sovereignty anywhere in Palestine. Netanyahu, emboldened by Washington’s actions, has abandoned his backing, such as it was, for two states. On a policy level, his decision last month not to renew the mandate for TIPH (Temporary International Presence in Hebron) reflects this reinvigorated hostility to Oslo-era institutions. In the 1998 Wye Plantation agreement, Netanyahu himself had agreed to support the placement of these very same international monitors.
There has not been a formal agreement between Israel and the PLO since then. Netanyahu’s unilateral decision to withdraw support for TIPH is the latest in a cascade of examples reflecting the practical effects of what Trump is doing.
Palestinians, too, are also busy seeking to squeeze out an advantage in this new environment. President Mahmoud Abbas is long past his expiration date. Under American tutelage, he has managed to avoid holding elections for the Palestinian presidency (2005) and Legislative Council (2006). Indeed, Abbas recently shut down altogether the moribund Legislative Council—where Hamas legislators are in the long-silenced majority—with not even a hint of protest.
Even more ominous, Abbas has threatened to pull the trigger on critical security cooperation with Israel at the heart of the Oslo system because of the potential legal liability created by U.S. aid for PA security forces. “The money will be cut off,” senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat told AFP. “We don’t want to receive any money if this will take us to court.”
Abbas has threatened to halt security cooperation with Israel before. But the abiding mutual interest in preserving (if not paying for) the security partnership is already forcing Washington to create a “workaround” to maintain U.S. support for Palestinian security services, a critical piece of the Olso puzzle that continues to be viewed as useful by parties that can hardly agree upon anything else.
The destruction of the order established at Oslo opens a new and perilous era. To be sure, Oslo contained the seeds of its own destruction. Trump inherited this failure, and he has now embraced a willful effort to finish destroying the old order with little plan for a replacement beyond that which is imposed by the victors.
Geoffrey Aronson is chairman and co-founder of The Mortons Group, and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.